Thursday, December 24, 2009

Guest Blogger #7, Angie Griggs, Age Marjie plus 2

Christmas in Vietnam has definitely been memorable. A few days ago our family drew names for our shopping, then went off to the Ben Thanh market, the huge tourist market in Saigon, to do our shopping. It's a little different bartering for the gifts you want to buy, and I must say the crowds were denser than anything I have ever seen on a Black Friday morning. But we succeeded! There is almost anything you could wish for at that market times ten!

Christmas Eve morning we went off into Marjie's neighborhood market to buy fresh fruit for our Christmas Eve salad (and of course rice cakes for our breakfast). Marjie had ordered a full turkey dinner to be delivered at 6pm, complete wth pumpkin pie. Believe me, we waited for it with not a little trepidation. We're so used to delicious turkey and all the fixings, and it would be such a disappointment if the dinner didn't taste good!

Marjie had invited Thuy and Thanh to join us, along with Tu and Monkey Boy. All of the gifts were wrapped, my dad played Christmas music from his mp3 player, and then at 5:30 up drives a guy on his motorbike with plastic bags full of our turkey dinner. Thuy and Thanh had never heard of turkey before. They called it a "big chicken." Thuy jumped right in and helped my dad carve it. We served our guests first, and were pretty relieved when they liked it! We took our first bites, and I think almost everybody ate seconds! Pretty tasty! Even the gravy, much to Megan's enjoyment.
I know none of us will ever forget this Christmas. Reading the story of Jesus' birth in 90' heat is quite a change from the foot of snow that surrounded us at Christmas last year, so we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas to get in our snow quota. T, T, T and MB loved it.
We are off to Hanoi tomorrow for more great Vietnamese food and adventure. Merry Christmas everybody!

My Two Mothers

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guest Blogger #6, John Bowker, Ageless Plus Four

Contrasts really strike me here:

-A large crowd of people in front of an open front building watching TV and cheering on the Viet Nam soccer team while a dense confusion of motorbikes go by in the street and a loudspeaker somewhere plays a US Hit Parade Song in English. When the team wins, the motorbikes increase with many riders displaying large national flags.

-Pedicab drivers who look you in the eye while grabbing your wallet, compared with restaurant owners who will chase you down the street to return a 3,000 VND (20 cent) overcharge for rice.

-A very active, narrow street market with a large variety of prepared food, clothing, raw fish and meat with a Willie Nelson song playing in the background.

-The lobby of the hotel in our neightborhood with a beautiful Christmas tree next to the front desk, complete with wrapped gifts and the hotel owner's motorbike parked beside it.

What an experience. Thanks, Marjie!

Devon's Back...

I finished washing some dishes a few minutes ago, which was difficult. The washing dishes part was not an issue, but it was the height of the counter that was so awkward to use. The kitchen counter height is a foot or so lower here than back at home. There are oddities of that sort all around here. I regularly snicker to myself thinking of how my friend Eric, who is about 6'3", would fare here. I try to imagine him sitting on the short, little stools at the short, little tables, and I laugh. I would love to see him confidenly striding through the market place only to be clothes-lined by a low cord. I am about 5'10", and I have some troubles. I can only imagine what would happen to him.

I think of my shorter friends Christa and Mikayla too. They are about my shoulder height, and they would fit right in with the locals. Instead of not-so-gracefully bending over the sink to wash dishes like me, they would be standing with perfect posture scrubbing a mile a minute and putting me to shame. While I duck my head under tarps in the allys, they would smile to themselves and continue onward thinking of all the times I had made fun of them being "vertically challenged."

So maybe Eric and I are the ones that are "vertically challenged," maybe Christa and Mikayla are the ones who have it made. New experiences bring new ways of thinking.

Anyway, despite being "vertically challenged" here in Nam, I've been pretty happy with the various new experiences. Except shopping. I squarely failed my first attempt yesterday at the Ben Thanh market in District One of HCMC. I found the wallet that I wanted to buy, and I bought it. Afterwards I learned that I did my bartering poorly and what's more the wallet was damaged. Arrrgh! I did end up exchanging it, but still, "Epic fail!" as my friends would say. I had another chance to shop at the market today, but I happily declined. Shopping as a whole hasn't been a nightmare, but it hasn't been a pleasant dream either.

Well, enough from me. If I don't write again before Christmas, then have a merry one!

Guest Blogger #5 Lewis Griggs, Ageless minus 23

While in the beach resort city of Nha Trang, Marjie recommended that we should go to the mud baths. Lets say that I was pretty skeptical of the idea. Then again I'm a boy at heart, and this would just add another facet to our Vietnam adventure.

After loading our eight member clan into the subcompact sized taxi, we honked and weaved our way through town, only to find the road with the largest potholes. At the end of the long windy road was the quaint mud bath resort.

After paying our entrance fee, we all got swim-suited up and climbed up a hundred or so stairs to the first treatment, in amongst the trees. The attendent requested that we shower first. And I asked myself why? We are only going to be wallowing in mud like pigs in just a few moments, what's wrong with a little perspiration added to the mud mix? With the language barrier, I didn't challenge the situation.

Imagine your family, extended family that is, in your hot tub with 15 gallons of mud silt thrown in. Think of it as a supersized warm mud facial that covers your whole body. Once covered with mud, soak for 20 minutes. There was a lot of giggling all around the tub. The mud mixture made us very bouyant. Now we know what it feels like to be a pig.

The treatment continued with a long traditional shower where mud just cascaded off our bodies and across the cement as we started to become somewhat clean again.

Next up was the pressure wash cycle. As we walked through an open stone hallway, many horizontal streams of water attacked our bodies from all sides.

The mineral soak cycle was next. It's a hot tub filled with warm mineral water. Soak time is 20 minutes. The water was clear when we started, and cloudy gray by the time we were done.

Finally we got to the swim and waterfall cycle. The relaxing pool was huge and was about 102 degrees. A little too warm for Michael Phelps. If that is not enough, stand under the warm waterfall and see what paradise feels like.

I have never felt that relaxed in my life. Thanks, Marjie, for recommending the mud baths.

Pop Quiz. Can you figure out who owns these body parts?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Family Display

My family is at the beach - Nha Trang - and I am finishing up my last day of school, then flying to meet them today at 5:00. I hear it was sunny yesterday, but rainy today. I wish you could guarantee the weather when you are a travel agent for your family!

I know it's a cliche, but it truly does feel like the school clock goes backwards on the day before vacation...

The kids came to school with me on Wednesday and all three of them were huge hits. In fact, some seventh grade girls will probably give me the silent treatment for a while because they were not asked to take Megan around school. The energy surrounding the kids wherever they went was pulsating. Perhaps the most pulsating moment, however, was at lunch.

Devon had told me at breakfast that he "didn't feel well." I bought them all lunch in the cafeteria - a pretty safe grilled chicken plate - and at the end of lunch, he came up to me and said, quite diplomatically, "Aunt Marjie, I don't feel very good. Where should I go?" I took this to mean that he was about to throw up and I looked around to problem-solve this when... he did it. He threw up in front of half of the school.

To Devon's credit, he laughed about it the whole way through. He said something like, "I really know how to make a first impresssion, don't I?" And his display didn't even defer an eight grade girl from asking him to the winter dance for tonight (too bad, he can't go). We got him a t-shirt from the PE Department and he sat down in the lobby for most of the rest of the day while Megan and Nolan played dodgeball and took science tests. (Shared with permission from Devon.)

That same day, my mom, dad, Angie and Lewis took a taxi in a downpour (they got to see the flooding right outside the school) to meet us at the end of the day. My students were especially excited to meet my mom, who made them cookies as motivation for a school-wide reading competition (that my 6th graders ended up winning). She also chooses the best table names for groups each month. They were late because of the rain, but my students stayed in my classroom an extra 15 minutes just to meet everyone. I'm so glad my family got to see it all - rain, flooding students, etc. Because it's really hard to explain it all.

When my mom was ready to get on the bus the other night, she said, "I'm looking forward to the beach, but I hate to leave your neighborhood." This is how we feel all the time. My whole family is now quite tight with T and T - Nolan had a specific vision to make some shorts with a neon green stripe down the side, and Thuy rode her motorbike all over Saigon to find that neon green material. I'm sure that after Nolan's fashion hits the streets of Saigon, even more people will be wanting to touch him. But they turned in clothes to be made by my expert tailor at the top of district one, as well as Sweet Seamstress (who is making Nolan's design dreams into reality) nextdoor.

It will be really nice to come back and have my whole family at the castle for a few days before we all take off to Hanoi/Halong Bay on Christmas Day. I haven't really felt myself until just a few days ago - that Dengue was really awful - so I'm looking forward to giving my family a rightful tour of all the food outside my door that I love so much.

Stay tuned for more kid updates when we return next week (and Merry Christmas)!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Minute with Marjie

I could spend hours writing about how much fun it is to have my family here, but that will have to wait... the one thing we have all been laughing about is how much attention Nolan is getting from everyone. Everyone wants to touch him - whether it's to stroke his cheek or pat his bottom or just look at him with googley eyes and point him out to everyone who passes.

I took everyone to my Singaporean restaurant tonight and our waiter, who was male, could not keep from touching his cheek - over and over. He brought about ten of the staff over and pointed at Nolan. They all wanted to know how old he was and would he come back soon? It was beginning to get a little bit creepy how much attention they were lavishing on him. Nolan is pretty much unfazed about most things and he just kept poking his food with a chopstick and dropping it into his mouth, much to the entertainment of the entire wait staff.

We are wondering how we can make some money off of this Nolan Phenomenon...any ideas?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Guest Blogger #4 Carol Bowker, Ageless

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City! Has it really been only four days? It seems like we have had a life time of experiences. When we first arrived Marjie was still in the hospital. Her friend, Sharon, took us to see her first thing. She was weak, tired, and covered in a red rash, but had a promise of release the following day. She gave us Vietnamese money, a phone, and a map and told us to go have some adventures. That we did!

We followed the map (carefully) to Thuy and Thanh's fabric stand. They greeted us warmly and told us to come back at 1:00 when their stand closed. We did and asked them to show us Marjie's favorite pho stand. They said "no;" they had fixed chicken soup for us to "keep us well." We were invited into their home which is behind their fabric stand and served delicious soup and an orange drink. When we tried to thank them, Thuy said "no." Then she pointed to her heart and said we were "one family." It was very touching. Marjie was quite surprised about the lunch; she has only eaten there once, and that was during Tet. Since that time we have seem them quite often. Yesterday they took John and me shopping at the morning market for ingredients for lettuce wraps, hot pot, and deep fried spring rolls, which they cooked for us that afternoon. Everything was delicious.

John and I also had the experience of being cheated by a pedi cab driver. We had taken a taxi to see the Reunification Palace (where President Thieu was taken by helicopter from the roof) and were trying to catch one to return to our hotel. A pedi cab driver just wouldn't take no for an answer. He kept saying "one dollar, one dollar," and practically pushed us into the cabs. Well, it WAS fun. At the end however, when John took out his wallet to pay, the driver's nimble fingers grabbed bills from the wallet and off he went leaving us with blank looks and mouths open. We think he got about $30. We learned.

Marjie is feeling better. She went back to work today; we are at the castle now waiting to hear how her day went. She is planning to take the kids to school with her on Wednesday. Another experience!

Guest Blogger #3, Megan Griggs, Age 14

What was my first impression when I walked out of the airport and got into a mad man's taxi cab? "WOW" I was astounded and excited! The taxi ride was even better then Splash Mountain in Disneyland. It was a thriller experience. We drove on the wrong side of the road and almost ran over a dozen people on their motorbikes. We were trying to get to our hotel that is located about two minutes walk from Marjie's place.

This morning we got a magnificent tour of the market place where we bought huge amounts of food for paying almost nothing at all. As we walked though the alley ways of the market I felt like I was a member of the Cullen family in the series of Twilight. Every eye seemed to be fixed on us as we strolled along trying to mind our own buisness.... Awkward!

Grandma, Grandpa and I all tried some really good chicken noodle soup for breakfast this morning. They gave us a huge bowl with lots of noodles, chicken and all that jazz but then they gave us chop-sticks... "Great! This ought to be fun!" I said to myself. I attempted to use the utensils that were given to me only to hear everybody around the tiny little stand laughing. I had no idea how to use them! At home all that I would do is spear the meat or whatever we were eating with the chop-stick and it seemed to work pretty well, but my plan didn't succeed with noodles, trust me it doesn't work.

I also got to go to the Bum Bum, it is amazing! Some of the stuff that they did to my face kinda tickled, but it was definitely refreshing. Now my toes have been painted pink, my hair is straightened, and my face has been lushusly moisterized, what a treat! To sum up what I have seen so far, Vietnam is unique, delicious, and hot.

Guest Blogger #2, Devon Griggs, Age 16

Our first Ho Chi Minh City experience involved a taxi ride. Now I've never been to New York, but I can imagine that a HCMC taxi ride is a step up from from an NYC taxi ride. Passing on the right with oncoming traffic is something I'd do in a videogame without a care, but in real life it is quite thrilling.

We made it to the hotel at about midnight or so, HCMC time. I counted one Christmas tree and eleven motorikes sitting in the lobby, and little open floor space. There are motorbikes everywhere! On the streets, in the alleys, in the lobbies, in the family rooms; one must be above the ground level to be away from them. Which reminds me, most buildings here are four plus stories tall, with twleve foot wide alleys in between. The markets are in the alleys, making the walkways even narrower, and what's more, the streets and alleys are teeming with people!

I feel tall here. There are an estimated six million people or so in this city, which is really a lot of people. I'm fairly sure that all of King County back at home doesn't even have two million people, for some comparison. Anyway, Pike Place Market in Seattle is high class compared to the alley market here, and Seattle is just a toddler of a city on the world scale, I have now learned. HCMC, however, is not quite entirely unlike home. Life has been good here so far, the sky is blue, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the time here in Nam.

Guest Blogger, Nolan Griggs, Age 12

I just had the best yogurt in the world. My first thinking of Vietnam was...''so hot, so muggy, so humid.'' Every thing is so cheap. But not cheap in a bad way at all. SWEET SOUR SALTY SPICY CRUNCHY is quite right. It is 1 dollar to 18000 dong. For a coffee it is 30 cents. For a bowl of pho it is 60 cents. SO CHEAP!!!!!! the food is not normal but is still vvvery tasty.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Within the 2 Meter Thick Walls of the Citadel

*This post was written just hours before I got really sick with Dengue Fever and had to spend the week in the hospital. My parents arrived and have been impressively independent - they have already been treated to lunch at T and T's house and have been out in the hood for two days straight. I don't think they even need me...

I'm writing about Hue I've posted pictures of the citadel, which we saw when we first arrived. The view from the train between Danang and Hue was breathtaking, just as we had heard it would be (if only the windows of our sleeper train didn't have an inch of dirt on them!). But the ride along the coast and through the foggy hills was a highlight for both of us.

We arrived in Hue at 4:00 and went straight to the citadel. The air inside the 2m thick walls was so pleasant and breezy and so absent of motorbikes, it felt like heaven. This place, however, is the setting for where "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" - the name of the famous book that was made into a movie by Oliver Stone. I am going to quote the Lonely Planet's descrption of what took place here because I am too lazy to summarize it myself...

"Hue was the sight of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive and was the only city to be held by the Communists for more than a few days. While the American command was concentrating its energies on Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops skirted the American stronghold and walked right into Hue. Immediately on taking the city, political cadres implemented detailed plans to remove Hue's "uncooperative elements." Thousands of people were rounded up in house to house searches, conducted according to lists of names meticulously prepared months before.

During the 3 and 1/2 weeks that Hue remained under Northern control, over 2500 people - including wealthy merchants, government workers, monks, priests and intellectuals - were shot, clubbed to death or buried alive. Shallow mass graves were discovered at various spots around the city over the following years.
When the South Vietnamese army units proved unable to dislodge the occupying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, General Westmoreland ordered US troops to recapture the city. Over the next few weeks, whole neighborhoods were leveled by VC rockets or US bombs.

Over the next month, most of the area inside the Citadel was battered by the South Vietnamese air force, US artillery and brutal house to house fighting. Approximately 10,000 people died in Hue, including thousands of VC troops, 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and 150 US Marines, but most of those killed were civilians."

So the peace Jessica and I felt there upon our arrival somehow didn't flow with the history of what we were reading. How is it possible that this place saw so much pain? The grounds were so well-kept and absent of any of the city's past. I guess that's what time is supposed to do, isn't it?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Thank You Emporer Duc

Emporer Tu Duc (1848-83) expected 50 dishes to be prepared by 50 cooks and to be served by 50 servants at every meal. If I had a lot of money, I think I would spend it that way, too. Anyway, ETDuc is to thank for the variety of food in Hue. Although we did not try an elaborate imperial dinner, we had many good tastes there.

The famous soup in Hue is the one pictured here: Bun Bo Hue. Again, my internet research led me to the restaurant known for this local soup...with more spaghetti-like noodles than in pho, and the balls of meat are tasty and a little spicy. Other than that, I was honestly a little disappointed in it. I am so spoiled by the soups in my market...this soup is great, but it's not my market soup, and I definitely could only handle eating one bowl, prepared by three women and served by one moody man. Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

My favorite tasting experience occurred in the public market right before it closed the night after our motorbike trip. As we passed this woman, she beckoned us over with the catch phrase "no meat!" Jessica and I both agree that walking through markets with a lot of raw meat makes you want anything but meat. So we sat down and she served us a smorgasborg of "vehicles for glutinous rice." (Jessica's catch phrase).

My favorite glutinous vehicle was the one up front in the picture - believe it or not, the green filling is pesto. I could have eaten 50 of them, both prepared and served by this one friendly-yet-overcharging woman. The dish behind it was good, too - crunchy little tofu squares were topped with glutinous rice and shrimp powder. She kept placing plates in front of us, which was a very effective strategy. As usual, I should have asked "how much?" because I'm quite sure she charged us double. I guess that 60 cents per dish instead of 30 isn't that bad, I said, you lose perspective when you live as cheaply as we do here in Vietnam. And when you are spoiled and live steps away from a market where people don't cheat you...

Another night we ate in a restaurant that served traditional Hue food, and it wasn't until later that we discovered that the entire family who served us was deaf; we read it in the guide book later and then remembered that they used a lot of gestures when we ordered. There we had three regional specialties:

1) Banh Khoai - a pancake with shrimp, meat and egg that you wrap up in lettuce, figs and green bananas and dip in peanut sauce(pictured underneat the top dish here).

2) Banh Cuon - rice steamed rolls filled with Pho beef and lettuce - dipped in nuoc cham sauce (fish sauce), and

3) Banh Beo - pictured on top here - shrimp and meat sauce over glutinous rice.

#1 won the prize for me. I could have eaten ten of them, prepared and served by five members of a deaf family.

Honestly, though, the vote for best overall food may have to go to a Japanese restaurant called "A Japanese Restaurant." This place is run by a Japanese man who has made it his mission to educate Vietnamese street children. 52 kids have been put through school because of his efforts, and this restaurant is run to help a percentage of them learn the hospitality business - a kind of Hue-style FareStart. Every taste was extremely delicious, and was prepared by someone who was given a break. Just like at FareStart, you feel grateful for the opportunity to eat for good karma.

Last but not least, here is Jessica with our two local Huda beers. Not bad, out of the choices available for Vietnamese beer. But it doesn't win any prizes, and I was so tired, I could hardly even drink this one huge Huda made by a local brewery and served by one long-haired Vietnamese bar owner.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cemetery Fantasy Land

Of course I have been hearing how great Hue is for a year now - this former imperial city and its citadel, the royal tombs surrounding it, and (of course), its reputation for food. "The Food Center of Vietnam"...are words that have drawn me, yes.
I will talk about some of those things - because we loved Hue (I may end up calling it my favorite city in Vietnam) - but not today.

Today I am talking about this quirky little side trip that Jessica and I took during our day-long motorbike ride. I did some research on TravelFish and found a reputable guide named Mr. Trung who works with the You and Me Restaurant in Hue. When we met him, we felt like this man dressed in trousers and a sweater was going to be our Vietnamese father for the day. Jessica, who was his passenger (I followed behind) found out quickly that he had been born in Hue and was in the thick of the fighting in '68 (central Vietnam is where most of the hard fighting was...the Tet Offensive took place in Hue), so he went to Danang for a while to escape all of it before returning years later.

Something I did not know about Jessica before her visit is that she is a Seeker of Cemeteries. She kept asking me about them but I provided very little information to satisfy her curiosity. Thankfully, she was asking Mr. Trung about them, too, so that might have been the reason for our side trip.

Anyway, after riding outside of town for almost an hour through boat and water buffalo scenes that Jessica referred to as "a series of postcards," we came upon the most peculiar town. We drove past a row of very high-end houses and down a long dirt road when suddenly, we seemed to have arrived in "Cemetery Fantasy Land." Ornate towering pagodas stretched for miles and miles on each side of the road. The scene immediately reminded me of Bryce Canyon, where the hoodoos give you that same sense that you are looking at valleys filled with castles.

Mr. Trung explained that this village was extremely poor during the war - poor and very hungry. Many locals escaped on boats after Saigon fell, and - apparently - became quite successful where they landed. With their newfound wealth, they sent money back to bury their ancestors and relatives in style. And you should see the style - these pictures cannot capture the magnitude of the scenes. One side of the road is where the Buddhists are buried, and the other side is for the Christians. What a juxtaposition to see Mary or Christ standing with arms wide open at the top of an ornate pagoda~

Well, the Lover of Cemeteries and I could not get enough of our grave exploration. This town is not mentioned in any of the fourteen or so guidebooks that have accumulated at the castle over the past year. Mr. Trung says there is no other cemetery like it in Vietnam, and I believe him; I sure haven't seen any like it. I just wonder why it is not on the tourist track, and I wonder why some of the country's poor don't just take up residence out here in these beautiful structures...

After interacting a bit with the water buffalos who were hanging out at the site, we got back on our bikes and drove out to the beach where we drank out of coconuts and ate some fish under a little private tent. I wish I could tell you that the meal was perfect, because the setting sure was (if you ignored the random piles of garbage that are ubiquitous on all Vietnamese beaches).

Stay tuned for more traditional reports on Hue~

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How to Kill a Cockroach

The best way to kill a cockroach:

1) Get him running across an open space while you are holding a large, heavy book (I have found literature collections to be great for this)
2) Hold the book right above his running path and then DROP it . This will smash him well.
3) After a few days - when you are out of large, heavy literature books to drop - pick up the books (which may or may not have been sitting there for a while) and scrape the corpses from the bottom into the toilet.
4) Flush.

Cockroaches, ants... you stop sweating this kind of thing when you live in a place like this; you just learn to kill kill kill. And you get really good at it and share your killing strategies with others. You stop sweating it until you realize you are killing way too many of them on a regular basis and you think that they are coming from inside the box that is lodged in the corner of your Rapunzel Room bathroom ceiling.

Then you tell your landlord, who is usually pretty responsive. He may tell you to go and buy a can of Raid, but don't let him pull that one on you like I did. I let him pull that one on me for a week, until I could see multiple antennae coming out of the box and hear them like a carnival at night and until Katherine found one on her bed and until I came home to five of them on my bathroom floor. Then I sent him a text late at night that said, "We can't live like this anymore. Please get a professional exterminator here tomorrow."

He did get one, and we came home to many, many cockroach corpses. I guess we will be coming home to them for a while now. Big ones, little itty baby ones... the cockroaches are dying. When I asked how many were in the nest in the box in my bathroom, he smiled, shook his head and said, "Many."

That is the best way to kill a cockroach.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

From Hue to Hot Pot in One Day

All good news to report regarding our Thanksgiving Hue trip (and Jessica's beach trip - thanks for sending the good beach vibes her way), but all of that goodness will have to be reported "later."

Jessica and I got up early this morning for the beautiful bus ride from Hue to Danang and flew back in time to celebrate Thuy's birthday at the Weasel BBQ Place. (I'm really glad that Jessica got to see weasel being grilled on her second to last night in Vietnam.) Here she is posing with the best hot pot I have had yet:

We had a great dinner - T and T, Jessica, Tarn, Katherine and I - but we are all extremely tired. Take a look at Katherine, who has the most right to be tired - she was the first woman to finish a race to the top of the Black Virgin Mountain near Tay Ninh on Saturday (Tay Ninh is where my Uncle Rex was stationed in '68 and he still talks about that mountain). I'm very proud of my castlemate! And we are also tired from fighting cockroaches in the castle, which is something I will post about at another date, too.
I hope my family still wants to come after reading that last sentence...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that we had a superior teacher day buffet dinner at The Majestic Hotel - the oldest hotel in Saigon. Jessica also experienced a White Lotus spa day, is getting quite proficient at Bum Bum hair washes, ate rice cakes and did the Ben Thanh market - all of this before she decided to get sick, and this just a few hours after she took a bad spill right on her tail bone and scraped up her arm in the backpacker district (this is the bad news). After the spill she said, "I think I will go back and lay down in my balcony room where it's safe."

And later, after she got sick in her safe balcony room, she said, "It's kind of interesting to get to know how the medical system works in Vietnam."

Something else she said (that really bothered me) was, "Maybe it was the rice cakes that made me sick."

I didn't say this to her, but I will say it to you: "Impossible!"

So, ever the optimist, Jessica - despite many mishaps and a sickness that lasted more than 24 hours - has maintained a good attitude. Right now she is on the bus to Mui Ne to rack up some beach time while I work. She is on the bus with the most nasty of nasty Saigon kisses, an arm scrape, and a mere, "I'm feeling well enough to go on a five-hour bus ride" perspective.

While Jessica did her sick thing on Sunday morning, I went shopping with Thanh for ingredients to cook Indian chicken curry. Every single time I go to the market, I get some kind of surprise; on this morning, I learned that Indian spices are sold together in little packets at a few of the vegetable stands. One spice packet includes cumin, curry powder and bay leaves, another includes a mixture of curry oils.

In this picture, Thanh is mixing up chunks of chicken (hacked with a cleaver just minutes after the poor chicken was killed) with the oils and spices. While the chicken browned in oil, she poured boiling water over the shaved coconut meat and then squeezed it out to make fresh coconut milk. The curry was fantastic. Everything these girls make is fantastic.

The highlight for Jessica, though, was the entertainment that Monkey Boy provided. He is getting awfully cute and warm in his old (5 years old) age. While we cooked, she, Tu and he played computer games on the Disney Website. (Her highlight was not going to Family Medical to drink terrible electrolite formula to replace all of the nutrients she lost the night before.)

Everyone, please send Jessica the most positive of beach vibes. She could use them!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Alley Rice Cakes - 5th Visitor to Try Them...

Within a month, that number will more than double!

It kind of looks like a creepy hand is about to grab Jessica from the ledge behind her, but she ate her cakes unencumbered. We are supposed to cook with just Thanh tomorrow, and it looks like we are going to make Indian chicken curry, of all things...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

For a Guy Hate Writing Like Me

November 20, Teacher's Day in Vietnam. It's such a great day.

Cards, flowers, gifts, saying "Happy teacher day!" all day long - and the school is hosting a teacher dinner tonight at a cool old hotel by the Saigon River. Jessica gets to come.

Here is what is written in my two favorite cards:

"Happy teacher's day, Ms. Marjorie!" You're a fun teacher. First thing when I stepped into Language Arts class, I thought it will be boring but nah, your class was fun, for a guy hate writing like me." - Long

and this one, from Luan:

"When I study Language Art, I see my grammar is better. Thank you to teach and help my gramma better."

Does anyone know of another country that has Teacher Day? Or perhaps Doctor Day? Lawyer Day?

Jessica's Epic Day

Guest blog from Jessica: Hello Marjie's faithful readers. I am Marjie's friend/former student who is visiting for the next two weeks. I arrived Tuesday night, and this is the story of my day yesterday.

I met Marjie downstairs at 6:45 after a restful sleep in the balcony room. I'm sure Marjie has mentioned this before, but there is open grating high up above the front door of the Castle and so it sounds like everything that is happening in the alley is happening in the house. In other words, when the neighborhood wakes up, you wake up. And they are all up very early. We walked down the alley into the market and Marjie pointed out her favorite vendors to me (or where they would be if they were there this morning, which some of them were not). We stopped by Thuy and Thanh's fabric stand to find material for the clothes I want to have made. They didn't have have what I needed so we moved on to the food. I ended up with two spring rolls, a bag of rice with beans and tapioca, a mangosteen (amazing little fruit that looks like wet garlic but tastes like candy) and some rice cakes (but not THE rice cakes). Oh, and coffee. Sweet, sweet Vietnamese coffee. We said hi to vendors and saw an escaped crab make its way down the alley.

Nam picked me up promptly at 9 outside the castle and we began our adventure. I had ridden on the back of a motorbike yesterday, so I knew the drill a little bit (like which side to dismount from - painful lesson), but as we pulled out into traffic I couldn't help but adapt a line from the movie "Almost Famous": "I'm riding fast through Saigon on the back of a motorbike, and we're all about to die." Nam was a very cautious driver -- especially after we saw a four-bike accident - including a woman holding a child - happen a few feet away from us.

Our first stop was Reunification Hall. In short, this was the White House of Southern Vietnam and was where Northern Vietnamese troops drive tanks through the gates on April 30, 1975 ending the war and reunifying Vietnam. The place is amazing. It was rebuilt from the French building that once stood in its place by a Vietnamese architect in 1960 and is basically frozen in time. Very mid-century modern. I only made it as far as the second floor though before getting asked to leave the tour group that I was apparently crashing. Marjie had mentioned that I should take a tour rather than just walk through on my own and as soon as I walked in, there was a little tour starting in English, so I figured that was where I was supposed to be. When we got upstairs to what was essentially their situation room (detailed maps on the walls and a row of different colored phones on a table) a man in the group turned to me and said that it was a private tour that they had paid for and that it was really rude of me to tag along. I asked if he was asking me to leave but I'm not sure what he answered, I had already turned away to go. Another man said that it was ok for me to stay, but I certainly didn't need to be in a group where I wasn't wanted.

So I left and told Nam to take me to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum. I'm not sure if it was the jet lag, the heat, or the gravity of the photographs, but by the time I made it to the two rooms filled with pictures of Agent Orange deformities I was past fighting back the tears. I randomly bought an American soldier's dog tag and a Vietnamese uniform patch from the little gift stand and left.

When I got back to Nam- the bossy driver who Marjie has told us so much about- his bossiness started to show. He pointed through the fence where you could see the front of the museum and told me to take a picture through there and then from a different angle. His art direction of my photography continued for the rest of our tour. The next stop was Cholon, which is Saigon's Chinatown. About a block away from the main market Nam's bike broke down, so we walked it around the corner to a bike shop and then he directed me to go to the market. He proceeded to direct me through the maze of knock-off handbags, shoes, hats, plastic things (chairs, containers, etc), spices, pickled things, meats . . . . finally to a beautiful courtyard with a dragon fountain. We lit insence and then headed back into the maze.

I tried to ask him if we should both sit down and eat but apparently he wasn't hungry because he led me over to a counter, pulled out a stool for me, told me where to put my bag and ordered lunch for me. Then he told me that either he was going to go have a drink and come back for me or go get his bike, I'm not sure, but I was able to communicate that I would wait there for him. I held my bag between my feet on the ground in front of me, but had the phone Marjie had bought for visitors on the counter in front of me. There are people who come around asking for money here who hold these little tickets. I'm not sure what they are, I like to think they are lottery tickets, but I'll have to ask Marjie. Regardless, an old woman came up to me with them while I was asking how much my lunch was. I felt really uncomfortable since I obviously had money out in my hand but was trying to be polite and tell her no thanks. She stayed right by my side through the transaction but disappeared suddenly before I turned back towards her. My phone disappeared with her. Luckily, I already had a plan to meet Marjie, I'm just hoping the phones are as cheap as everything else is here...I'll be filing that under "miscellaneous travel expenses."

After we left the market there were still two hours before I was supposed to meet Marjie at her school. From the way Nam exaggerated his hand making an around the clock motion (it was from then until 2:30) I got the feeling he was done with me. We looked back in my guidebook and decided to go to the general post office. After my 10 minutes looking at the giant poster of Ho Chi Mihn (keep in mind that Nam just sits outside wherever I am waiting for me to finish), I thought it best to just have him drop me off at Marjie's school so I could read or something until she was ready. I was also hoping to have a chance to visit the school nurse so that she could have a look t my "kiss" which I had been covering with a make-shift bandage of a tissue taped around the edges with bandaids that kept slipping off and falling out from under my pant leg.

The rest of the day was great. Marjie's school was air conditioned -- so much so that I was actually a little chilly by the time we left. I was able to use a computer in the lobby until Marjie came down and retrieved me and her whole class greeted me when I came in the classroom. Then we bought fabric and dropped off clothes to the seamstress and headed across town to the Continental Hotel for drink at the rooftop bar. Except they apparently don't have rooftop bar like I could have sworn I read in a guidebook. We went into their non-rooftop bar but it wasn't right. See, we were going there because that is where a lot of the Graham Greene novel The Quiet American takes place. This falls under the lesson that you should not try and recreate scenes from books or movies, as your own experience in the same places will never be the same.We instead went down the street to the Sheraton where they did have a top floor bar and a breathtaking view of this massive, sprawling, living city. Over a dinner of Banh Xeo, Marjie and Katherine told me about my many options for day spas that I should try out today and I think I will do just that . . .

Getting Kissed In Saigon

It took me over a year to get kissed in Saigon, but it took Jessica only one day.
Unfortunately, I am talking about the most unromantic kiss's the burn you receive when you dismount a motorbike on the wrong side and sear your leg on the exhaust pipe. I got my first one after school a few weeks ago right above my ankle.. let me tell you - it is painful. Jessica noticed it when I picked her up at the airport.

"What is that?" were her exact first words to me (after "hi!").

"It's called a Saigon Kiss - you don't want one," I answered.

Well, the next day I received a text from her in the morning (I bought a "guest phone" for everyone about to visit) saying that she had already met Thuy and Thanh, had taken a xe om (mototaxi) and had already been kissed in Saigon.

She didn't think it was too bad. Then.

But look at it now... it's bad.

It is also referred to as The Saigon Souvenir. She is going to take home a big souvenir.

Impressed with her bravery and accomplishments for the first day? Me too. Well, I will let her tell you about Day #2 with Nam, but will "spoil" it by telling you that she met me at school in a very cheery mood despite the fact that she had witnessed a bad motorbike accident, gotten her phone stolen, had experienced a bike breakdown with Nam, and had been kicked off of a tour at the Reunification Hall.
Not bad, Jessica, for only 48 hours in Saigon...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Just Like Old Times

It's 7:15 when I hear Franco yell up the stairs, "Marjie - there's someone here to see you!"

It's just like old times. I know it's Nam, here to non-communicate with me about Jessica's visit. I had hoped he would bring Minh by earlier so I could write an itinerary; however, that didn't happen. Of course, he is here now, right when I need to be gathering all of my stuff together and heading out the door.

I run down five flights of stairs to communicate with my ex-mother. "Hello, Nam!" I say.

"Mari, hi, see you again!" he says. Very sweet, this man.

"My friend?" he asks. Nam says "my friend" for everything concerning friends, whether it is his friend, his friend's friend, or my friend. To him, it is just one word.

I make the Vietnamese negative gesture and say, "Not today. She comes tonight." To which he responds with his own Vietnamese negative hand gesture and an "I don't know" - as in, I don't know what you are saying.

I spread my arms like wings and pretend I am an airplane. "Tonight," I say, then when I know he still doesn't get it, I just say, "Minh?"

"No Minh," he says. Then he points to his phone; he wants to exchange numbers again. Knowing Nam, he has probably lost five phones since we last communicated with phones in June. I sigh because I have left my phone charging upstairs (and I have been too lazy to memorize my number that I have had for over a year now) - all five flights up. I tell him to wait and sprint up to get it.

I bring it back down, find my number and hand the phone to him so he can enter my number into his phone. His freakishly long fingers still shake when he handles the phone; he is not used to it yet. He enters a number and tries to call. The "no number" recording sounds. He enters another number. Same thing. I gesture to him to let me try, but of course Nam can do it himself. He won't let me try.

Katherine comes in from her morning market run and I roll my eyes at her. This is taking so long, and I wanted to get out to the's Vegetarian Day (Full Moon Day) - my spring roll lady sells sweet potato spring rolls only on this one day per month. Believe me, Katherine rolls her eyes right back at me. Remember, she is my physical extension when it comes to Nam irritation.

Finally, on the third try, Nam gets the number right. I save his number. Then he asks again, "My friend?"

"Not today."

"My friend, when?" he asks.

"Tonight. But you will drive her on Thursday." Of course he doesn't understand.

"Minh," I say. Get Minh to call me, I gesture. I will explain it to him.

This transaction takes fifteen minutes. I still have to climb the five flights again to get my gym bag and the pants I still must iron, plus trek to the outskirts of the market for the sake of sweet potatoes.

When Nam leaves, I look over at my bike and feel like kissing it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tart, Soft, Oily, Oregano-Y and Olive-y: They Didn't Like It

I made dinner for Thuy and Thanh tonight. I made a Greek salad and babaganouj from the eggplants that are roasted in the market to go with it. I picked up some naan from an Indian restaurant and found feta cheese for the salad. I brought the Greek olives from home. It was delicious.

But... they don't like raw tomatoes. They both made a pile of the feta and olives in the middle of their plates. They spread the babaganouj on one piece of naan and didn't touch it again.

The only things they ate were the cucumbers and the naan.

Katherine tells me that I shouldn't worry about giving anymore; I should just focus on taking. They get so much pleasure from being my cooking instructors - that is enough, she says.

I think I will listen to her.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wall of Flight

Jessica comes Tuesday night around midnight (all of my guests arrive at midnight...I need to train them better) and so my string of visitors is beginning. I think I am ready.

Here is the bedroom wall I told you about- I will refer to it as The Wall of Flight: on it are confirmation tickets for two people to Hue (Jessica and I are going to Central Vietnam over Thanksgiving to explore the food capital of the country), tickets for eight people to Hanoi for the Halong Bay cruise, etc, tickets for eight people to Danang to see Hoi An, tickets for eight people back to Ho Chi Minh City (my family's trip), tickets for two people to Jakarta (Sue is coming back in February and we are going to Java/Bali over Tet, and one ticket to Phuket, Thailand for the last weekend in January (Katherine found round trip tickets for $50, so we are giving Thailand another try...)

I took Katherine to my new favorite Haianese Chicken place - Singaporean food - last night. Over steamed chicken, barbecued pork and black peppercorn beef, our conversation turned in a very familiar direction: our lives are good here. The above-mentioned plans, the food that is so amazing and cheap, the personal hour and a half long home massage I have on the calendar for Monday night, the endless cheap movies and HBO series to watch on the roof, the fruit juices made for less than sixty cents, having clothes made, waking up to a market full of freshness every single morning, good friends to cook with, a friendly neighborhood, hair washes, pedicures, manicures, lying by the pool after school and on the weekends...

Yeah, we have been mourning the idea of leaving this place ever since we got here. We know we will never find another Saigon. That's what we talked about over our feast last night, the feast that ended up costing us about $5 total. I was so enamoured by it, I forgot to take a picture of the food. It was both beautiful and delicious.

I saw Nam today - the first time since he spied on me at school. I hardly ever pass him on the street anymore because a new road opened up for my journey to school and it takes me in the opposite direction. But I found Minh this morning to request Nam as Jessica's driver, and went to confirm it with Nam. It was good to see him; he had just gotten a hair cut and was wearing his classic blue driving shirt. We shook hands and communicated in our normal, inefficient manner. He is happy to have a purpose coming, so Jessica, hope you are ready.

Hope you are ready for hair washes and markets and great cheap food and clothes making and massages~

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All ________ People Look Alike (choose a color)

I forgot to mention the best part of a story from a few weeks ago...

The Sunday I was showing T and T pictures of my family - when I got to the picture of my parents - Thanh literally gasped.

"They look just like Katherine's parents!" Then she ran over to Thuy to show her.

"Just like Katherine's!" Thanh repeated to her as she showed her The Replicas.

This statement was seconded by Thuy. "Exactly!"

Both T and T now have my family memorized; good thing Katherine's parents don't return until after my parents are gone... how would they tell them apart?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

It's Not Even Thanksgiving!

Have any of you muttered the words "It's not even Thanksgiving!" yet- disgusted over the shameless grasp of Christmas consumerism that seizes our society at the earliest possible moment? We have to say these words every year, right?

Yeah, I've said them already, too. This morning, I see a man walking through our old-world market selling Christmas wrapping paper.
"It's not even Thanksgiving yet!" is my automatic American thought-response. Then I remember where I am: the seller is in bare feet and tattered clothing; he's not exploiting anything, he's just trying to feed himself.

I get back to the castle to report this to K and she says, "I know! Did you see the Dancing Santa at T and T's stand yesterday?"

No, I didn't. And I didn't see it this morning, either. So I run back to the stand to get a picture and only Thanh is there - no Thuy nor Santa.

"Where is your Santa?" I ask.

She doesn't understand.
"You know, Santa Claus? Ho ho ho?"

Completely blank.

"Merry Christmas?" I do a little dance to show her I am speaking of the doll.

"Oh! The Christmas Man?"


She hops off of the table and disappears inside to retrieve him.

"He will bring us good business and welcome customers!" she tells me, producing the doll. She turns him on and he begins his little dance. Seems that Santa - to her -is more like one of their Business Buddhas, meant to bring luck and money to their year. I don't have the heart to tell her that what Dancing Santa actually inspires in people is a desire to grab an axe and chop him up into little tiny pieces.

"Where did you get him?"

"Monkey Boy (our nickname for her nephew)," she says. And then, "What you call him?"

"Santa Claus."

Angie, Mom, Dad...I think I know what you need to bring: your Christmas movies. "The Grinch," "Rudolf," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." We need to educate these girls ~

Speaking of my family, I have everyone's itinerary hanging on my wall: calendars, plane ticket confirmations...and a list of everything I want them to eat. I am beginning to enter my Food Panic Mode. The voices in my head often fight over food priorities when it comes to what I want other people to experience, and I don't really like this personality trait I have.
I'm sure, though, that the clam woman around the corner from the castle is a top priority. These two plates of clams are so delicious - one plate is long-necked clams and morning glory stir fried in tamarind sauce and topped with peanuts, and the other plate is clams steamed with lemon grass and beer.
Both plates come to $1.80. Yep, top of the list~
p.s. I thought it was pretty cool that the first Vietnamese member of Congress, Anh Cao, was also the only Republican representative to vote in favor of the health care bill. He was born in Vietnam and "fled with two siblings after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to live with an uncle in Indiana," according to the New York Times.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Salsa and a Flat Tire

When I got up early this morning to buy 15 tomatoes, five onions and a few peppers at the market, dice them up and put them into a huge container and balance it on my motorbike for the ride to school, how could I have had any idea that these tomatoes, onions and peppers and I would spend an hour and a half sitting against a wall by the side of the road on one of the hottest mornings in Saigon so far this fall?

I’ll begin the story of my morning's saga by explaining about the vegetables:

At most international schools, teachers are required to run some kind of after-school club. Last year I helped with Drama Club, and this year I am in charge of Cross-Cultural Club. We – fifteen of us – decided to focus on a certain country for three or four weeks; our goal is to learn about food, music, art, holidays, etc. Our first country of focus has been Mexico (I influenced this a bit). We got a late start on clubs this year, so our first meeting was just a few weeks ago. We learned about Day of the Dead (Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, the days the dead come back to visit) and did a skeleton art project; skeletons were supposed to be doing something the kids love to do – the whole “death as a part of life” idea. That's why mine is eating two tacos:

The kids were really excited to make quesadillas and fresh salsa today, so that’s why I had everything chopped up and ready to be mixed, cilantro’d, limed and salted by them. I was very excited for this, because I love giving cooking demonstrations. I really wanted one of those adjustable mirrors that the real cooks use, but had to settle for a plain old table. I had set it all up and talked to the sweet cooks in the lunchroom, asking for permission and for the location of pans, cutting boards, etc.

So I was on the road this morning, all loaded up, when I felt my tire go flat. No surprise... flat tires are rather common in this City of Motorbikes. But, for some reason, I panicked, and I forgot about all of the tire fixers at most every corner. I thought that, just maybe, I could make it to work and then deal with it.

But then I felt the tube blow out, too, and I was forced to the side of the road. I got a hold of a friend who reminded me about the tire fixers on every corner. I saw a guard sitting inside the pumping station where I had stopped and pantomimed my dilemma. He gestured over just around the wall, and, sure enough, there was a tire – fixer stand. The tire fixer, though, was nowhere in sight. The guard walked over to the cart and lifted the tarp covering it. A man emerged - from what I'm guessing was a twenty- year-long deep sleep.

Not a Sleeping Beauty sleep, though - he looked at me and smiled with his three remaining teeth and seemed happy to go right to work on my bike. “Great,” I thought, “Better than Jiffy Lube! I will be out of here in no time!”

I notified the school at eight that I was late, but it wasn’t a big deal because I have first period prep. So I leaned against the wall to wait. When the guard brought me a plastic chair, I felt comfortable enough to pull out my book and read, sweat already pouring off of me.

After fifteen minutes, I looked up; my tire fixer was crossing the busy street. I looked over at the guard and he informed me that he needed to buy a part. Fine. I went back to my book. Tire Fixer came back and worked some more. I continued reading. And sweating.

After fifteen more minutes, I looked over to the station; he was crossing the street again! The guard looked at me and made the Vietnamese negative hand gesture, indicating, “This guy isn’t really so good.”

I was beginning to wonder when he had last fixed a tire. 1982? He didn't have any parts.

After another twenty minutes went by I looked up and my heart literally stopped: my bike was gone, and so was the guy. I looked desperately over at the guard. “Have I given my bike to a con-man?” was the look I gave him- because motorbike theft is rampant here.

But the kind guard assured me it was OK, that he just had to take the bike somewhere. Again, I got the "he is a crazy tire fixer with no parts" hand gesture. OK. I waited ten more minutes, and during that ten minutes I called my principal again and told him the latest. He didn’t like the sound of my bike “going away” and told me he was going to send someone who spoke Vietnamese over to help. This entire process should have taken about fifteen minutes.

But fifteen more minutes went by before my bike returned. Tire Fixer was rolling it right by me, dressed in his greased – covered grey jumpsuit. Taking a closer look, I could see his hands; I couldn't tell where the fingers ended and the fingernails began – they were completely black.

He took it back to his station and continued working on it. Meanwhile, enter a passing crazy woman who was obsessed with my collection of tomatoes, onions and peppers. She took them out of my bag and spoke to me in non-stop Vietnamese, like I understood her (just like Nam's family). Finally, I took my bag from her and walked away and pretended to receive a phone call. What a hot, strange morning this was.

Finally, Tire Fixer rolled the bike over and told me it was fixed and quoted me the price I was expecting: about four dollars for a new tube and 90 minutes of "labor" - or "part-finding." I waited for Nate to get there and we learned that my tire fixer didn’t have any air, either. He had no parts nor air. So he had to wheel my bike to a place that had it – a place that, I am thinking, was just a block or so away. That place most likely had parts and tools, too, and a tire fixer that had been awake for at least some portion of the last decade to fix tires.

He sure was smiley, though.

Anyway, my salsa ingredients and I finally made it to school by the end of second period - my hair ruined for the day from sweat.

The after-school quesadilla making was a success - despite the stress that the vegetables had to endure. The kids loved the quesadillas and wanted to go home and make them for their families. My favorite part: the kitchen staff was so curious to watch us mix the salsa, fry the tortillas and fill them with shredded cheese (you don’t see cheese much here) and were so gracious to assist in any way they could, so I topped three quesadilla triangles with salsa and took them to the kitchen. The cooks were shy at first, but then one took a piece and said, “Thank you, Teacher!” The others followed, and their eyes lit up at their first taste of salsa.

Every once in while, you get that feeling that you’ve just done something very good. When those eyes lit up at tasting salsa, I definitely had that feeling.

And giving that tire fixer a job- The Most Unprepared Tire Fixer in Saigon. That made me feel really good, too.